Batting is a very technical thing, far more technically demanding than most sporting endeavors. It is as much about mental elements as it is about physical skill. A peculiarly demanding element is the question of time and not merely in the context of strike rates and targets.
One of the TV commentators - Pommie Mbangwa- recently quoted Herschelle Gibbs saying that opening the innings was the easiest job in cricket because the situation was always the same. You can see what he means. If you bat at, say, No.5, you are never sure about the situation when you go in. But when you open, the situation is clear.
Batting is a unique sporting phenomenon in this respect. In all other sporting contexts, except baseball, which is similar but not identical, everybody turns up and leaves at the same time. It doesn't matter whether it is a team game or an individual one - soccer, rugby, tennis, golf, badminton - people might be doing different things but they are working together. In cricket the same is true of the fielding side. People are doing different things - some bowl, one keeps wicket, some are close-in fielders; but it is all about collective effort. They arrive and leave together.
Batting, however, is a peculiarly individual process. The pivotal number three position embodied by Don Bradman and Viv Richards, the greatest batsmen of the twentieth century, illustrates this.
When Ricky Ponting won the toss and opted to bat against England on a belter at the Adelaide Oval in December 2010, he found himself facing the fifth ball of the match, delivered by James Anderson , after Simon Katich was run out without facing a ball. Ponting was dismissed in Anderson's next over and Australia never recovered, going on to lose the match and the series. Earlier in 1989, Ponting's Tasmanian forerunner David Boon had had a successful Ashes series, scoring over 400 runs at No.3. However, he spent the first day of the fifth Test at Trent Bridge sitting in the dressing room with his pads on watching Geoff Marsh and Mark Taylor put on 301 and eventually 329 for the first wicket. You just don't know what is going to happen.
Test cricket is peculiarly susceptible to the vagaries of time but the World Cup encounter between West Indies and Zimbabwe in Canberra illustrated the games that time can play with batsmen, in this case the West Indies top four of Dwayne Smith , Chris Gayle, Marlon Samuels and Jonathan Carter.
Smith and Gayle came out to open after Jason Holder had won the toss and opted to bat. Smith faced the first ball from Tinashe Panyangara. It was a good length ball and outside off, Smith let it go, which came as a surprise, as he is not generally regarded as a member of the old-school opening club. The next ball was much fuller and straighter and it cleaned Smith up. That was it for him. Smith made the long, lonely walk back to the pavilion.
In walked Samuels to face the third ball of the match. That's the thing about batting at No.3: you might effectively be opening the innings.
We all know what happened from thereon. The second - wicket pair began steadily and the score was 73 for 1 in 17 overs when drinks were taken, with Gayle on 41 and Samuels on 27. Gayle upped the ante around the 25th over and this meant that Samuels could afford to take his time till the death overs. West Indies belted 114 in the last seven overs of the innings, finishing on 372 , Gayle 215, Samuels 133*.
And Jonathan Carter? Jonathan who?
I thought you might ask. Carter is a 27-year old left-hand batsman from Barbados who was to bat at four. He had played five ODIs, all coming earlier this year against South Africa and had a highest score of 40.
Carter played only because Darren Bravo had pulled a hamstring in the match against Pakistan. This was a huge deal for Carter, a World Cup game and an opportunity at No.4.
His heart must have been in his mouth when Samuels walked out. He got a single off the first ball he faced and Gayle then prepared to face Tinashe Panyangara. Gayle would have been out lbw first ball . There was a huge appeal: not out. Zimbabwe referred it: not out and umpire's call prevailed. It could have so easily been 1 for 2.
But it just wasn't. Carter had to sit and wait. In the 17th over Samuels was dropped. Carter must have instinctively reached for his gloves and helmet. But no, he had to wait longer. When you are in at No.6 or No.7 you can switch off a bit. But as the next man in, there is nowhere to go. You sit in a dark room, probably not a comfortable one and wait for the two minutes' notice you'll get to be challenged, physically and mentally, at the top level. Or not, as the case may be.
By about the 35th over Carter's natural anxiety may have morphed into something slightly different : a realization that, even if a wicket was to fall, it would not be him going out to replace his departing colleague. It would not be the rookie; it would be a 'finisher' like Andre Russell or Darren Sammy.
As it happened Gayle was eventually dismissed off the last ball of the innings.
Four batsmen, four different experiences. All on their own despite a 372-run partnership.
On March 29, two opening batsmen - who knows, maybe Smith and Gayle - will walk out to open in the final in front of 90,000 fans. Despite all the chatter and glove-tapping , every man will be on his own.
It's a bit like the feeling expressed by the immortal Barry Humphries: After a busy day , getting ready in his change room and then walking out to face a packed house in a darkened Drury Lane auditorium.
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